NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana hospitals are already packed with patients from the latest coronavirus surge and are challenged by Hurricane Ida, which slammed ashore Sunday as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States.
“Once again we find ourselves dealing with a natural disaster in the midst of a pandemic,” said Jennifer Avegno, the top health official for New Orleans.
The storm struck as hospitals and their intensive care units are filled with patients from the fourth surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates across Louisiana.
Daily tallies of new cases in Louisiana went from a few hundred a day through much of the spring and early summer to thousands a day by late July. Statewide, hospitalizations had peaked at around 2,000 or fewer in three previous surges. But that number peaked at more than 3,000 in August.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday more than 2,400 COVID-19 patients are in Louisiana hospitals.
“We’re in a very dangerous place with our hospitals,” Edwards told The Associated Press.
He said evacuating the largest hospitals was not an option
“There aren’t hospitals with the capacity to take them,” Edwards said. “And so making sure that they can maintain power and water, have access to all the things that they need and oxygen and other things is going to really consume a lot of our time and attention because we know that the lights could be out, power could be out for weeks.”
He added: “We don’t know what the damage is yet, but we’re going to start planning to make sure that we have plenty of generators and expertise on hand to try to keep these hospitals operational. You know, and I hate to say it this way, but we have a lot of people on ventilators today and they don’t work without electricity.”
Officials at Ochsner Health, which runs the largest hospital network in Louisiana, said Saturday that they considered evacuating some facilities closer to the coast but that wasn’t possible considering how packed other hospitals are. Roughly 15 of the network’s hospitals are in areas potentially affected by Ida. The network evacuated some patients with particular medical needs from small, rural hospitals to larger facilities.
“COVID has certainly added a challenge to this storm,” said Mike Hulefeld, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Ochsner Health.
Hulefeld said the hospital network ordered 10 days of supplies for facilities in areas that might be affected by Ida, and everything arrived. Each facility has backup power that was tested and a backup fuel truck on-site. Many of the chain’s hospitals also have water wells in case city water goes out.
“We’re as ready as we can be,” Hulefeld said.
Dr. Jeff Elder, medical director for emergency management at LCMC Health, said the system’s six hospitals went lockdown mode Sunday. Employees were going to stay at the hospitals for the duration of the storm arrived Saturday and early Sunday and would sleep there.
Elder said one of the first things their hospitals do when storms arrive is discharge patients who are able to leave. However, the patient load is high because of the pandemic so they’re not able to reduce by much. He said the hospitals in the system are more robust since 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.
“We’ve learned a lot since 2005,” he said. Key pieces of infrastructure are now raised to keep them out of flooding. For example, at University Medical Center in New Orleans, which was built after Katrina, the generator is raised, diesel supplies are protected and the first floor doesn’t have essential services so even if flood waters get that high nothing essential is lost.
All hospitals in the system have generator backup power, Elder said. He also stressed that communication is now much better between hospitals in the hospital system as well as with various levels of government.